REVIEW: The Woods, Royal Court Theatre ✭✭✭

Mark Ludmon reviews Robert Alan Evans’s play The Woods starring Lesley Sharp at the Royal Court Theatre.

The Woods review Royal Court Theatre
Lesley Sharp in The Woods. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The Woods
Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, London
Three stars
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With its aromas of wood and smoke, Robert Alan Evans’s new play The Woods immerses you in the disorienting world of a woman confronting some unknown horror from her past. Advance information about the show revealed little except it was about a woodland cabin with a boy, a woman and “her wolf”, and for most of its 85 minutes, this is a bewildering, disconcerting ride where you can be sure nothing is what it seems.

The Woods review Royal Court
Lesley Sharp and Finn Bennett in The Woods. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Under director Lucy Morrison and designer Naomi Dawson, the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs space has been transformed into a forest with trunks reaching up to the roof and bark chipping under foot. There is indeed a dilapidated cabin where a woman, wearing only a filthy floral nightdress, tries to take care of a teenage boy she has found in the snow. But high up on one side, another scene briefly appears – a smart modern kitchen with a baby monitor on the counter top – hinting at the truth behind this wild woman of the woods and the mysterious wolf-like man who repeatedly turns up to taunt and trick her.

The Woods Royal Court Theatre
Tom Mothersdale and Lesley Sharp i The Woods. Photo: Manuel Harlan

It feels post-apocalyptic but the apocalypse is a personal one for the woman whose name we never learn. In a mesmerising performance, she is played by Lesley Sharp with an anguished physicality, howling, twisting and constantly in movement to reflect the pain that has driven her to this dark place. Despite Sharp’s intense, compelling performance, it is difficult to connect with the emotional truth of this pain. Just as the woman has escaped into the woods to avoid confronting what has happened, we are kept at a distance from feeling it, even when she finally reveals and faces up to the horror. Like a fairytale wolf, Tom Mothersdale is sinister but charming as her frequent visitor, bringing touches of welcome humour, in a variety of roles that add to the unsettling experience. It is often good to be disconcerted and bewildered at the theatre, and The Woods takes this to extremes, testing the audience’s tolerance for a play that is so removed from naturalistic reality.

Running to 20 October 2018


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